09 MAY 2014: Scan the label on your household products, footwear and the unmentionable undergarments that hug your birthday suit and chances are the label blares Made in China. The Chinese are proud people. They shout from the mountain tops and now atop their skyscrapers declaring the dragon has awoken.


The dragon is symbolic for many things like the country’s longest river, the Yangtze.

On a recent visit to China’s Golden Triangle I noticed the dragon appears everywhere from the decorative walls enclosing an ancient garden to the spines of the dragon restraining a highway overpass.

Bound by Beijing, Shanghai and Shanxi province the Golden Triangle screams superlatives. Some of the obvious ones your clients will know, include The Forbidden City and The Great Wall of China in Beijing or the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai and the Terracotta Warrior Army of Shanxi.

The Jewels

The Forbidden City stood for over 500 years serving 24 Emperors who lived in this private fiefdom surrounded by concubines, eunuchs and the Imperial court. It has withstood earthquakes, natural disasters and the massive complex even survived China’s 1911 Revolution. That’s when the last Emperor, a little kid, was ousted. (See Bernardo Bertolucci’s brilliant film: The Last Emperor).

The Great Wall of China is one of the world’s greatest engineering feats. It’s said that over one million poor souls died during its construction. The span starts in Shanhaiguan in the east in Hebei province and snakes albeit in broken sections across the country’s northern countryside to Jiayuguan in Gansu province. It was constructed to keep marauding Huns and other warrior tribes at bay. Walking it is a definite challenge. Steep slopes, smooth stones and strong winds can make you unsteady but still the climb is worth all the effort. (Watch our video)

The Oriental Pearl Tower was the pride of Shanghai when first erected and became an enduring symbol of what the city aspired to be. Its futuristic presence and views still hold visitors spellbound even though other buildings like the new Shanghai Tower dwarfs it.

Now the surprises:


Beijing

Everyone knows how China has ditched its legendary bikes for gas guzzlers. Not so in the Xicheng district known for its historic neighbourhoods called hutongs like the one we explored.

Only accessible by rickshaw the old city stands as one of the last harbingers to the hundreds of bustling neighborhoods that once spanned across the country’s capital before massive urban development replaced them with towering behemoths.

Groups can embark on a rickshaw hutong escapade. Two passengers per cab and off you go along narrow streets shared with other cyclists. The entrepreneurship is astounding too. I was greeted by a cycling scarf vendor whose neatly bagged items dangled from a bigger bag off his wrist -- resourceful, yes.

We stopped by Houhai Lake for snaps and entered a quiet laneway tucked off the main drag. It’s here you get a sense of what old urban life was like.


The sheer silence was golden. Zhang Shui Xing a local artist welcomed us into his home. (Watch our video) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydpW8XYFShU&list=UU-s-h6-OndKi-z4dm4Z-CiQ). His family has lived here for four generations in this 300-year-old house. A splendid one story stone house facing a small private courtyard this sanctuary holds the private world of Xing’s art.
“The neighborhood has changed a lot since I was a child. Now it’s so noisy,” he says through a translator. Funny it was blissfully peaceful on our late morning visit.

Takeaway: This ancient burb is protected so clients interested in seeing old Beijing will totally enjoy the romp. Of course while hutongs (there are only a few remaining) are now a cleaned up version of their former scruffier selves it is still a spectacle to experience. The neighbourhood has even caught the attention of Jackie Chan and other celebs paying mucho yuan for real estate there.

Shanghai

Want to escape the whirr of city life? As busloads head to the historic Bund to see the old British vestiges which have now morphed into luxe shops and banks there’s another spot in Shanghai worth a detour: the Yuyuan Garden.

The garden was the vision of a local officer in the Ming Dynasty who built it for his dear parents. Sadly his father didn’t live to see the completion. But you can. The city wraps its arms around the 400-year-old garden providing a calm oasis in the epicentre of the bustling metropolis. (Watch our video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biLp04AQGUc&list=UU-s-h6-OndKi-z4dm4Z-CiQ).

Again solitude happens. It’s a lovely place for photography and a great spot to unwind and think about your trip. See rare flora, turtles in the myriad of ponds, and once again spot the dragon. Hint: look atop the wall and see a spiny rocky ridge and of course the dragon’s head and feet.

Takeaway: Combine a shopping and garden tour. Yuyuan Garden is by the Yuyuan market located in Shanghai Old Town.

Shanxi

Shanxi Province holds many treasures.

One gem is the UNESCO World Heritage site city of Pingyao. What’s cool about this 2,800 year old place is its pedigree. A beautifully preserved time capsule from the Han Dynasty Pingyao also happens to be where the Bank of China and escort services began.

Meanwhile the walled city’s design was shaped after a turtle (in China turtle means longevity) and depending on what gate you enter you can be arriving through the uh-hum spot. We chose the head at the south gate.

Pingyao is another one of those places in China accessible by small transportation i.e. electric bikes and golf cars. We zipped into town with one. (Watch our video.)

The sophistication of the locals with their trendsetting fashion was immediately apparent. I kind of knew this town had a certain je ne sais quoi after spotting tiny tots in matching outfits bearing matching toys. Then we stumbled upon the old bank.

The impresario of China’s modern banking system was a chap named Mr. Lei Lutai whose previous stint was working at a casino. The story goes when the local dye house boss discovered his smart gambling acumen there was a job offer. Mr. Lei accepted, threw some ideas out there on how to improve the dye business and in the process as history reveals the Bank of China was started.

Today you can go inside the original dye house that was converted into the country’s first bank. See the party room, an opium den where the drug was only served to clients and guests.

“After the clients smoked it they signed on the dotted line as a trick,” laughs Michael, my guide.
Then there’s the escort connection. No, not raunchy escort stuff, this was a serious business. To thwart the marauding bad guy robbers, body guards were employed by merchants to escort the transportation of loot and precious goods like gold and silver in carts many times overnight.
We walked through the China Escort Museum located a short walk from the first bank to discover a warren of rooms and an enclosed courtyard once used for training in all forms. These escorts were martial arts experts not an easy métier.
Ironically, once the banking system flourished the escort business declined. After all who needed the protection of a Ninja-type guy when there was a bank around?


More UNESCO

Sure some of your history buff clients might be up on their UNESCO World Heritage Sites but there are little known pearls of wisdom that often transpire during a private tour. My guide conveyed several fascinating notes.

About the Hanging Temple in Hengshan: “The wood was dipped in tung oil,” he says before we ascended the lofty perch. (Watch our video)

At the Yungang Grottoes spot one of the statues with a weird western visage donning a tie. “This Buddha statue is an anomaly and was probably dedicated during the time of western conflict,” explained my guide about the tribal conquests reflected in one of the 252 caves containing 51,000 statues. The grottoes are a must-see!

High up in Mount Wutai considered the holy of holies for Chinese Buddhism it was the wave of monks in their burgundy and gold robes that turned heads. Considered the holy of holies for Chinese Buddhism expect to see Buddhism to the hilt. We managed to visit four Buddhist temples in one day. Each one was more spectacular than the previous.

Post Trip


It’s funny since our return I catch myself daydreaming about China.

The ingenuity, drive and newfound optimism from a people long suppressed are fascinating to witness. There were many sweet interludes between the locals. I used my broken Mandarin which drew a bellyful of chuckles that thankfully inspired some funny photo ops.

That’s another thing I didn’t know before. The Chinese people are crazy about getting photos with Westerners. I have a great collection of them. I’m sure somewhere there was a dragon watching.


Due to a technical problem we have been unable to add the images to this and some other stories today. As soon as the issue is resolved we will add the images.

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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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